Self-care is something that many of us struggle to commit to. We are all so busy, rushing from one appointment to another, looking after others ahead of ourselves, that we leave little time for rest and recuperation. This long-term, low-level stress can be very depleting for the body and can make us more susceptible to illness as the immune system is weakened by higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
The Science Bit
Good health relies on a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our stress response. In response to a perceived threat the sympathetic nervous system is activated and the adrenal glands release stress hormones such as adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol. These hormones activate our “fight or flight” response enabling us to survive the perceived stress. Our heart rate quickens, stores of glucose are dumped in the blood stream to provide energy for our muscles to respond and non-essential functions (to our survival when under threat) are shut down.
The parasympathetic nervous system on the other hand, is all about “rest and digest”. Once the perceived threat has passed it takes over and restores balance, counteracting the impact of the hormones released by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), slowly enabling our internal organs to recover. Non-essential functions are restored such as digestion and the ability to reproduce.
Many symptoms that you may suffer with could be due to your sympathetic nervous system being more dominant, due to a constant state of stress. Here are a few examples:
The SNS decreases saliva production and slows down digestion. If this becomes prolonged you may suffer with digestive symptoms such as bloating, constipation and indigestion.
The SNS increases your blood pressure so that blood reaches your muscles to enable you to take flight, but long term raised blood pressure could increase your risk of developing heart disease.
If you want to read more about this please read the latest blog on my corporate nutrition website where my colleague Joan goes into more depth, explaining the role that nutrition plays in maintaining balance. Stress: A Guide to Stress Hormones and How to Keep Them Balanced – Vital Health (vitalhealthnutrition.co.uk)
My self-care strategies
I thought I’d share how I try and incorporate self-care into my life. It is a work-in-progress – I am very guilty of pushing myself too hard and disregarding the need for balance, but this year I’m trying to be better.
I walk my dog every morning and try to be as mindful as possible during the walk. We are so lucky to be close to the canal and woodland that surrounds it so it’s easy to be distracted by nature. If I find my mind wandering towards my to-do list I bring myself back into the moment by listing 5 things I can feel (cold air on my face, the contact with the ground), hear (the rumble of the M4!, the tinkle of my dog’s collar, the tweeting of birds) and smell (more challenging – but sometimes cut grass, baking bread from a nearby food factory). It’s a calming way to start the day.
I’m a big fan of the Calm app. I have paid for the full subscription and enjoy the short meditations – they can be as little as two minutes long. In between meetings I will find time to sit in a quiet room with a herbal tea, pop in my headphones and listen to a soothing meditation and I always feel calmer and revitalised. I also highly recommend their Sleep Stories for when you are struggling to sleep. They are so soothing that I rarely remember them in the morning.
Earlier this year I invested in a Sensate. This amazing device has worked wonders for me. It’s a vibrating pebble which you place on your chest bone, lying down. You then connect your headphones to the app, select a track and the pebble emits infrasonic sound waves in time with the track. The vibration stimulates your vagus nerve which plays a key role in regulating the SNS and PNS. For me, the physicality of the experience has meant that I get into a deeper state of relaxation than when I’m meditating. I’m drawn in by the music and the vibration and find it easy to switch off from my thoughts. If I use it at bedtime, I will have a much deeper sleep than normal. Please use my link and code to get a generous discount on this amazing product: getsensate.com/4WP (you may have to use the code 4WP when you check out).
I love the simplicity of a gratitude journal – and if you are a client I’ve probably encouraged you to keep one too. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy (although a good friend did buy me a lovely one recently) – a simple notebook would suffice. It’s more about getting into the practice of taking a few moments each day to note down three things that you are grateful for or are proud of. It’s been proven to quickly raise mood and encourage you to think more positively.
I’ve been having weekly Acupuncture sessions with Barbara Barakos who works like me at Bridge to Health for the last 6 weeks. My main goal is to return to full breathing capacity post-Covid, but Barbara is keen to work on my nervous system too. Acupuncture is proven to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, so it is the perfect therapy if you need more balance. Barbara is experienced in treating a wide range of conditions including stress, anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, headaches, PMT, period pain, menopausal issues, musculoskeletal pain and hay fever. If you are looking for an Acupuncturist she comes highly recommended and it’s virtually painless!
Just before I broke my arm in June I signed up for 10 sessions with an amazing Personal Trainer – Naheed of Zek Fitness. One of my clients had been raving about her for a while, so I decided that I was worth it. Unfortunately I had to stop for a few months, whilst my bone healed, but I’m back training again and Naheed is putting me through my paces! As any of my female clients will attest, I’m a big fan of strength training for women as is Naheed. She’s also a qualified Pilates instructor so can incorporate exercises to address imbalances (ie poor posture, weak core, shoulder back and hip tightness/pain) if needed. She has a beautiful fully equipped studio in her garden in Hanwell and the hour-long sessions pass in a flash. Like me she offers a free introductory consultation so get in touch if you’d like to get stronger and fitter and invest in some me-time.
I started going to pottery classes last September and I see this as a vital part of my self-care. Like many hobbies it is engrossing and you can get into a mindful state quite quickly. I go to sessions run by Hanwell Pottery at the historic Hanwell Community Centre. I’m really proud of the items I’ve created over the last year. A few weekends ago I went to a full day session and it felt like a real privilege to spend 6 hours doing something that I love. Spending time being creative is great for the soul, and the parasympathetic nervous system!
Other ideas for introducing some self-care into your routine
- Have a regular Epsom Salts bath – the magnesium in the bath salts is calming, and often depleted when you are stressed
- Mandala or colouring books
- Listening to music
- Taking time out to read
And of course, good nutrition is the ultimate manifestation of self-care! Why not sign up for a 6 week programme with me and make sure that your diet is supporting you and your lifestyle